China’s Reinterpretation of Nanjing Massacre1937

The movie “City of Life and Death” (Aka “Nanjing! Nanjing!”) was released in 2009, while the stage drama “Fallen City” (Aka “Lun Xian”) was performed in 2006 in Nanjing. Both performances, the movie and the stage drama, re-encounter the same piece of history –  Nanjing Massacre, but which performance is a more successful reinterpretation of the history? In this paper, I define success of reinterpretation of history as its ability to include multiple perspectives of the history, how intimate it is able to bring audience to the history (i.e. whether or not the audience would actually go through emotions as if they were placed in that age through watching the performance), and its relativity to real history. I am going to examine the differences between the reinterpretation approaches adopted by the two performances, through contrasting their use of characters, scenes, and dialogues. And finally I would investigate the reasons accounting for these differences examined.

The movie was directed by the young director Lu Chuan, and received both compliments and criticisms simultaneously from the Chinese society. Based its storyline on the well-known history of Nanjing Massacre, “City of Life and Death” has succeeded touching the hearts of some Chinese audience, yet triggered the anger of the audience who were unsatisfied by the sympathetic portrayal of of a Japanese soldier in the movie. Nevertheless, the movie earned approximately US$20 million and received unnegligible international attention by winning the top Golden Shell prize at the 2009 San Sebastian Film Festival as well as the Best Cinematography prize. Lu Chuan personally won the Best Director award at the 4th Asian Film Awards in 2010. Despite scripted on the same piece of history, the stage drama “Fallen City” was created by the Nanjing Repertory Theatre, a government organization under the Zhejiang provincial government, was so much lesser known both nationally and internationally. The drama was staged in the Memorial Hall of the Victims in Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Invaders, total profit or audience size of which are unable to be found, however. Instead of getting as much international attention as the movie, this drama won only local awards such as the Fifth Jiangsu Province Drama Festival Outstanding Prize and Nanjing City Five-Ones Project Outstanding Drama Prize (Chinanews, 12/13/2009).

Nanjing Massacre started from December 13th, 1937, when Japanese troops had captured this capital city of China in the Second World War. The massacre lasted for six weeks. In 1997, the sixtieth anniversary of the massacre, Princeton University hosted a commemorative event and reported an approximation of the massive death of 300,000 Chinese people and 20,000 women raped in Nanjing (Yamamoto, 1), yet the numbers have been controversial, ranging up to 340,000 and 80,000. The diaries of Western missionaries and Japanese soldiers, documents in Nanjing Safety Zone, and family letters of Dr. Robert Wilson, an American doctor at Nanjing Hospital, (Brook) provide strong evidence of the brutality of Japanese soldiers during their invasion of Nanjing. A notoriously known incident by the Chinese public, also covered by the Japanese newspapers at that time, is the “Contest to kill 100 people with a sword” involving two Japanese army officers and the hundreds of Chinese people they murdered. Besides this incident, documents revealed the fact that Japanese soldiers did “kill innocent civilians out of excitement or sheer sadistic pleasure” (Yamamoto, 59). Perpetrators of the massacre, including the two Japanese army officers that participated in the murder contest along with other Japanese generals, were found guilty and executed at the Nanjing War Crimes Tribunal, established by the Nationalist government in 1946, a year after the end of the Second World War.

When dealing with the same piece of history, Lu Chuan, director of “City of Life and Death”, was bold enough to include a more controversial perspective in the movie – looking at the massacre from the angle of a Japanese soldier. The movie starts with the exhausted face of a Japanese soldier under fierce sunlight, which is radically different from the beginning of the stage drama “Fallen City” that gathers already most of the protagonists – a Chinese soldier’s family members and a Western missionary. This shatters the stereotypical image by the Chinese society of a Japanese soldier, Kadokawa, being an entirely brutal and merciless villain in a performance.

The movie spends a large portion of time on portraying the painful mental struggle of the Japanese soldier in different situations during the massacre. At 00:15:04 of the movie, when Japanese soldiers discovered thousands of Chinese people hiding inside a damaged church and started threatening and grabbing people away, Kadokawa falsely believed that there were some Chinese soldiers hidden inside one of the wardrobes and fired his gun. Out collapsed from a wardrobe several young girls lying dead on the floor. He was so shocked and sorrowful that he actually tried to give them treatments, but was immediately involuntarily taken away by his peers. On another occasion, when he went with his peers to the dorms of “comfort women” that housed Japanese and Chinese women serving as prostitutes to the Japanese soldiers, he was frightened because he had never had sex before. He also told the woman that served him his name and told his peers that he was going to marry this woman. This was certainly not a common practice of Japanese soldiers, who only saw them as sex service providers. These two scenes deliberately deviate from the common stereotype of a Japanese soldier and demonstrate a strong sense of humanity, self-consciousness, and kindness in him through the emotions that he experienced and the promises that he was willing to make.

Kadokawa was frightened when he was about to have his first sex with a "comfort woman".

Kadokawa was frightened when he was about to have his first sex with a “comfort woman”.

On the contrary, in the stage drama it is very rare to see kindness shown by Japanese soldiers. At 47:00 (Part 1), when a Japanese soldier was stealing valuable Chinese paintings and antiques in a house, he urged a girl hiding inside to escape because his general was coming soon and would eventually rape her. The apparent kindness of this Japanese soldier was in fact his fear for her identity as a RedCross staff. Besides that, throughout the whole drama, there was not a moment when one of the Japanese soldiers hesitated or doubted their robbery and rape.

In addition to dealing with history from a different perspective, the movie also adopted a very subtle approach in its scenes and dialogues, in an attempt to let the audience feel the emotions that Nanjing people were going through during the massacre. One of the characters, Tang Tianxiang was German businessman John Rabe’s secretary, who helped run the Nanjing Safety Zone. However, fearing the fierce Japanese military, he had been providing Japanese officers with information about Chinese armies, in return to get their protection over his family. (This is also another demonstration of the multiple perspectives of the movie, since traitors are commonly portrayed as villains in other productions about Nanjing Massacre.)  At 51:00, Tang Tianxiang was trying to teach his family members “I am a good citizen” in Japanese to protect themselves in emergencies. The family was playing mahjong (a common gambling game for the Chinese people), chatting loudly, and not paying him much attention. The joyfulness of the family was all of a sudden silenced by distant bombs and a woman’s scream outside the house, followed by an innocent question from a child, “Daddy, is it firecracker outside?” Another moment of silence, when Tang said gently, “Hush… Chinese New Year is around the corner…Go sleep quickly…” The scene here does not straightforwardly expose the audience to the actual brutality of Japanese soldiers, but instead, by using contrast between noise and silence, a scream, and a child’s gentle voice, the audience are treading cautiously on the flow and twist of emotions. The audience would be stunned by the sudden silence in the scene, and they would be overwhelmed by the fear of unknown, closer to but never really the same as what the Nanjing people actually experienced. The audience digest different elements of the scene, and initiate these emotions on their own.

“Daddy, is it firecracker outside?” Tang Tianxiang was teaching his family Japanese when there was suddenly a bomb explosion at a distance.

“Daddy, is it firecracker outside?” Tang Tianxiang was teaching his family Japanese when there was suddenly a bomb explosion at a distance.

This more subtle approach, therefore, is more capable of touching the hearts of the audience deeper and bearing more significance to them than the didactic approach adopted by the stage drama. At 49:30 (Part 1) of the drama, after one of the protagonists was raped by a Japanese soldier, a Western missionary denounced the soldier by saying, “Please let your general hear my words: now the entire city is tormented by you Japanese’s brutality. I really hope that the women in your country would get to know your cruel behaviors here. You might win a military victory, but you Japan will forever lose the respect from us Nanjing citizens.” The straightforward, easily understood “speech” by the missionary appears to be much duller and mundane than the usage of scenes by the movie. The speech also appears very odd, didactic, and unlikely to happen at that moment in real history, since the missionary would have immediately helped carry the injured protagonist away for medical treatment, instead of walking up to the soldier in contempt. Hence, it is more likely that the subtle approach of the movie appeals more to the audience than the didactic approach of the stage drama.

The Western missionary (standing on the left) was condemning a Japanese soldier after he raped her friend.

The Western missionary (standing on the left) was condemning a Japanese soldier after he raped her friend.

Both  performances, movie and stage dramas, presented huge and genuine relevance to history. The refugee zone was described in detail in one of the family letters of Dr. Robert Wilson (Brook, 210): “The entire remaining population of Nanking, some 150 or 200 thousand individuals, were crowded into the zone …as the refugee zone. The International Committee are doing a tremendous job with them and there is no doubt but that they have saved thousands of lives…” This Nanjing Safety Zone also appears in the movie, managed by John Rabe and a Chinese teacher Zhang Shuyun. The behaviors of Japanese soldiers in Nanjing Hospital were also described in the family letters (Brook, 211): “They lined up some of the nurses and took away their pens, flashlights and wrist watches. They did a pretty good job of looting the nurses’ dormitory, taking all kinds of petty things.” This is included in a scene in the movie, where a Japanese officer was walking into Zhang Shuyun’s office in the Nanjing Hospital (1:11:56).

As for the stage drama, at 7:14 (Part 2), a missionary made a report about the atrocities of Japanese armies in the safety zone to a Japanese ambassador in the embassy in Nanjing. The report that she was reading from was actually true incidents that happened in real history. One of the incidents, for example, is that “On December 14th, a 19-year-old girl with 6-month pregnancy resisted an attempted rape by a Japanese soldier… Her face and neck were stabbed 19 times by a knife, her legs were stabbed 8 times, and her vulva was stabbed … After she was sent to the hospital, she had a miscarriage…” The report shows the director’s effort to bring significant relevance of the drama to real history.

Despite the similarity that both performances have strong relevance to real history, the movie still outweighs the stage drama and has a better reinterpretation of history, due to its inclusion of multiple perspectives of history as well as the outstanding ability to drive the audience’s emotions throughout the performance. These differences can be explained by the different directing style of directors.

In terms of the control of art development in China, Mao’s speech in Yan’an about revolutionary literature and art inevitably set the general framework for development of later ages. The focus of his speech was that literature and art should serve the people and socialism, which still remains as an art foundation for China (Zhang, 27). Mao also emphasized that literature and art should “create a variety of characters out of real life and help the masses to propel history forward.” In fact both performances demonstrate Mao’s definitions of literature and art by being performances that reinterpret and remind the public of a historical event. The characters in both performances are indeed people that existed in that time of history, such as the Western missionaries, teachers, John Rabe, a national traitor, hospital staff, raped women, and injured Chinese soldiers, and hence they are characters “out of real life”.

Lu Chuan, director of the movie, was inspired by Fifth Generation filmmakers, including Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige (Filmmaker Magazine, 2011). The Fifth Generation filmmakers are characterized by their mutual recognition of government censorship on arts, and their indirect response to political realities (Silbergeld, 197). Their indirect responses include symbolism as well as their movie plots on real typical stories in China. For example, in Zhang Yimou’s movie “To Live” (aka “Huo Zhe”), he made a brutal revelation of rural lives during the disaster of the Cultural Revolution. The tragic death of all the family members of the protagonist seemed to be unavoidable and pre-determined by fate during the decade of political uproar, yet satirically Zhang Yimou invited individual reflection from the audience: he offered room in the movie for them to doubt whether the death could actually be avoided, and to question the authority of the Chinese government officials who were running a corrupted bureaucracy at that time. It is worthy to note that both “City of Life and Death” and “Fallen City” received mostly government or state-run firms during their production. The degree of censorship hence should be more or less the same for both performances. The difference in the results of their reinterpretation of history, therefore, is caused by the different directing styles of directors of these two performances. The stage drama was able to achieve Mao’s definition of literature and art in a very strict, didactic way of laying out its scenes and dialogues. It can be seen how history can be used as a political tool to invoke national hatred, nationalism, and patriotism. This is similar to the Mao period when “red” communist movies and ballet performances were created against nationalists, such as the “White Haired Girl” and “The East is Red”. The movie, however, besides promoting patriotism and national unity like any typical documentary movies, has also included the features of the avant-garde theater or the Fifth Generation filmmakers – individual reflection, non-communist thinking, and satire to the real society. This is done by making the Japanese soldier Kadokawa and the national Tang Tianxiang two of the few protagonists in the movie.

In addition to having avant-garde features in the movie to make it stand out as a better reinterpretation of the history, the movie also presents the topic of war through an intercultural performance in a higher level. Instead of having a story of a culture combined with the gestural and vocal techniques of another culture like many intercultural performances (e.g. Xin Bi Tian Gao), “City of Life and Death” examines the conflict between two cultures and nations – Japan and China. According to Pavis (1996) (class reading), human culture is a system of significations which allows a society or a group to understand itself in its relationships with the world. This agrees with the root cause of the war or conflict: these two cultures of different significations have different interpretations of their status or responsibility in the world. Japan, with its traditional Bushido ideal (or named “Way of Warriors”), had the illusionary responsibility or mission to dominate East Asia and establish their superior imperial status over other Asian nations, while China, with its Doctrine of the Mean in Confucian thinking, took an inferior, non-aggressive position at World War Two (also contributed by the financial and military inability of China).

Pavis (1996) also emphasized that transcultural performances should also develop a “culture of links” that can connect people at the deepest levels of their humanity despite their ethnological and individual differences.The movie explores the common expressions of human nature in two different cultures: betrayal, guilt, and sacrifice. It depicts the mental struggles within the two characters who eventually decided to betray their own identity – Kadokawa released two Chinese people at the end of the movie, and Tang secretly told the Japanese general that the safety zone had injured Chinese soldiers even when he was one of the members responsible for protecting the zone. Kadokawa killed himself finally, owing to the overwhelming guilt of murder that he had committed, and Tang felt guilty for not being able to protect his wife and his wife’s sister from being raped. There is also a scene where 100 Chinese women sacrificing themselves to become “comfort women” for Japanese soldiers in return for clothes, blankets, and coal for the safety zone. “Comfort women” also included Japanese women who sacrificed themselves for the sake of nation’s military success. These human nature expressions – betrayal, guilt, and sacrifice – exist in both cultures in the movie, creating a unique way of intercultural performance.

Being a better reinterpretation of the Nanjing Massacre, the movie “City of Life and Death” presents itself as a partially avant-garde and intercultural documentary film, exploring humanities of the two cultures by including multiple perspectives of the history and bringing the audience close to the real history emotionally and factually.


Timothy Brook, Documents on the Rape of Nanking. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.

Masashiro Yamamoto, Nanking: Anatomy of an Atrocity.Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2000.

Damon Smith, Lu Chuan , City of Life and Death. Interview. Filmmaker Magazine. 5/11/2011

Jerome Silbergeld, China into Film: Frames of Reference in Contemporary Chinese Cinema. London: Reaktion, 1999.

Rui Zhang, Cinema of Feng Xiaogang: Commercialization and Censorship in Chinese Cinema after 1989. Aberdeen, Hong Kong: Hong Kong university press, 2008.

Movie Poster of “Nanjing! Nanjing!”


“Nanjing! Nanjing!” Movie Trailer

“Nanjing! Nanjing!” Full Movie

“Fallen City” (Part 1)

“Fallen City” (Part 2)

“Fallen City” (Part 3)